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Apr 22, 2011

Mancini may have to wait for vindication

"Many times I've been asked about our spending but we didn't buy Cristiano Ronaldo, (Lionel) Messi. We bought young players, good players." - Roberto Mancini, April 16

Victories offer almost limitless levels of vindication for managers. When they come against the club's fiercest rivals, setting up the opportunity of a first trophy for 35 years and are delivered by one of his own signings, that sense is exacerbated. Yaya Toure's FA Cup semi-final winner against Manchester United may prove to be the goal that saves Mancini's job; it also could be deemed the most important in Manchester City's recent history.

Yet to use that as proof that City have spent well over the last 12 months is a leap that closer analysis does not support. In one sense Mancini is fighting a losing battle in any argument; prices mushroom the moment City enter the bidding so criticism is a constant. But Sheikh Mansour's wealth means that value for money does not need to rank highly among the criteria for a signing.

Even if they are judged purely on their performances on the pitch, however, City's recent recruitment is not particularly distinguished. In the last 12 months, seven first-team players have arrived at Eastlands for a combined cost of £145 million. Only one can be described as an unqualified success: David Silva.

The Spaniard is a wonderful talent, a classy creator who can make the difficult appear simple. Quietly, he has become integral - indeed, there is the sense that Silva's skills haven't received enough recognition from impartial observers. In a team which can be too functional, he is the welcome exception, and Carlos Tevez's supplier-in-chief.

Yet as Silva is a World Cup winner and an even more prominent member of Spain's Euro 2008 champions, a question can be posed: how hard is it really, when money is no object, to identify players of such prowess? Here the answer is provided, to varying degrees, by the other additions: tougher than might be imagined.

Yaya Toure is one who divides opinion. Mancini's reinvention of the forceful Ivorian paid dividends at Wembley, but for some of the season he has seemed miscast as an attacking midfielder, a bulldozer employed in a role more suitable for a classic car. He has provided some unexpectedly delicate passes to accompany his ten goals yet his deployment seems a defensive gambit that often does not pay off.

Aleksandar Kolarov is another who is neither triumph nor disaster, but lingers somewhere in between. The Serb is a dogged competitor with a ferociously eye-catching shot but his lack of pace means Mancini sometimes favours the more dependable Pablo Zabaleta at left back. Ignore Kolarov's £16 million fee and the requirement was for a player who ranked among the division's three or four best in his position. At the moment, Kolarov does not meet the criteria to be regarded at that level.

He is nevertheless much City's best defensive buy of the last 12 months. Jerome Boateng was Germany's regular left back in the World Cup and seemed to have arrived as City's preferred option on the right. Instead, after an injury-hit year, he appears to have been leapfrogged in the pecking order by both Zabaleta and Micah Richards.

If anything, James Milner has been still more underwhelming. He may be able to empathise with Toure's troubles while envying the Ivorian. His final year at Aston Villa convinced the Englishman he is a box-to-box midfielder, the role Mancini saves for Toure. Yet for one who has excelled on either flank before, Milner has been unimpressive in his old day job as a winger. His presence on the bench rarely merits a mention now.

Nor, for one who joined so recently, does that of Edin Dzeko. The £27 million forward's 15 games have only brought four goals; two against a Notts County side near the foot of League One and two versus Aris Salonika, who appeared little better. Like five of the other six newcomers, Dzeko was an import who, by definition, could need time to acclimatise to English football. Like Kolarov and Toure, however, he possesses a physicality and a style of play to suggest a seamless integration might have been possible. Instead, it has not. Then, most controversially of all, there is Mario Balotelli. Ignore some of the more lurid headlines about City's enfant terrible and a record of ten goals in 24 games appears respectable; none, however, has come against top-eight opponents and his culpability in their Europa League exit to Dynamo Kiev, a dismissal that provided a prime example of why he has more cards than goals, means that Balotelli has more in the debit than the credit column.

And he, more than any of the others, was definitely Mancini's choice. While the recipients of praise and blame can be debated - Milner, for instance, appears the preference of City's football administration officer Brian Marwood while Toure was first identified in Mark Hughes' time as manager - only two of the seven, Silva and Toure, are even assured of a place in the strongest side. They may be young, good players - though when one is 27 and four more 25, the definition of youthful has been stretched - but they are no Ronaldos or Messis. Only Silva comes remotely close to that category of player.

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